Knocknagow - CHAPTER XL.

CHAPTER XL.

THE DRAGOON'S PRESENT. THE BEAUTY RACE.

DURING all this time Bessy Morris's tongue and fingers were very busy. She talked and plied her needle incessantly; but ever and anon she would pause for a little while and take to thinking. During those moments of abstraction, Grace remarked that Bessy invariably slipped her hand into her pocket; and in this little circumstance Grace saw a "mystery" which she resolved forthwith to set about unravelling. And as a pocket naturally suggests money, Grace concluded that it was of money Bessy Morris was thinking every time she stopped working and slipped her hand into her pocket. So, by way of a beginning, Grace said:

"Just before you came in Miss Kearney was lecturing me because I allowed my mind to dwell sometimes on so vulgar a subject as wealth. Now, don't you agree with me that poverty must be a very disagreeable thing?"

"Indeed I do," Bessy answered, looking surprised. "I was always wishing to be rich."

Did you ever think it would be pleasant to get a rich husband?"

"Well, I believe that used to cross my mind sometimes," replied Bessy with a sad sort of smile. "But what I most desired was to be able to do something for myself."

"I suppose it was that made you learn dressmaking?" Mary observed.

"It was, Miss," she replied. "Though I pretended to my grandfather that it was on account of my aunt's health I was obliged to stay so long in Dublin. Only for that he would not consent to have me away so long."

"And were you able to get money?"

"Well, I was able to lay by a little during the last year. But 'tis very hard to make a fortune, and only that I was stopping with my aunt, I'd find it hard enough to live. My ambition was to earn as much as would make me independent."

Grace thought that this was a higher ambition than her own.

"But you seem to have enjoyed the attractions of the city very much, and I wonder how you could come back to the country," she observed musingly.

"Well, I could not leave the old man alone," Bessy replied. "And there were others reasons to induce me to come home."

"And used you not ever wish to be back in the country?" Mary asked. "I fancy I'd pine away and die longing for the green fields if I were shut up in a city."

"Well, an odd time I would," Bessy replied. "When I'd be alone of an evening I'd find myself wishing for the old place and the old friends. But I like excitement, and I think it very dull and lonesome now, having no one hardly to converse with, and no change, but the same thing over and over every day."

"I can understand that feeling very well," said Grace. "I am dying to plunge into the gaieties and excitement of Dublin. I am to go next winter, and it puts me in a fever to think of it."

"I never could be tired of the country," said Mary.

Bessy Morris made no reply. Her hand was in her pocket again, and her tongue and her needle at rest.

"Here is a letter that Wattletoes had in his hat, and he forgot it," said Willie as he opened the room-door.

Mary started in a way that was unusual with her, and snatched the letter eagerly from her brother. Was she thinking of another letter which Barney had put in his hat and forgotten?

"It is for you," she remarked, handing the letter to Bessy Morris, who took it without evincing any surprise, and was putting it in her pocket with a quiet smile when Grace said:

"Oh, you need not stand upon ceremony. Read it."

Bessy cut open the envelope with her scissors, and read the letter.

"Not a love-letter at all events," thought Grace, who was watching the expression of her countenance. "Oh, it is only a habit she has," she added, as Bessy's hand glided into her pocket the moment she had finished reading the letter.

Grace was wrong in both conjectures.

"Is it a love-letter?" Mary asked.

"It is, Miss," replied Bessy, laughing.

Both Mary and Grace looked at her in surprise, for neither expected such a reply.

"Maybe you'd like to read it, Miss," she said, turning to Grace, who eagerly accepted the offer, remarking that it was the first love-letter she had ever seen except in a novel.

"'DEAR MISS MORRIS,' Oh! that's a shockingly bad beginning. I am quite disappointed 'I take the present favourable opportunity of writing these few lines to you, hoping that you are in the enjoyment of good health, and free from all the ills that flesh is heir to, as Byron says. Dear and best beloved' Ah! that is something," Grace observed, with an approving nod "'words are inadequate to convey an idea of the state of my mind since that fatal Sunday afternoon, when I called at your highly respectable female relative's, at twenty minutes past one P.M., according to appointment, for the purpose of escorting you to the Zoological Gardens, and the harrowing intelligence fell upon my soul like the war of elements, the wreck of matter, and the crash of worlds as Byron says that you had vanished like a star from the horizon when the storm-lashed barque of the mariner is tossed upon the foaming breakers, and he paces the deck alone, and mourns the hopes that leave him, while his life is a wilderness unblest by fortune's gale, and his fevered lips are parched on Afric's burning sand, and no one near to whisper hopes of happiness and tales of distant lands as Byron says. It was then, for the first time in the course of a chequered existence, that I fully realised the truth of the sentiment that absence makes the heart grow fonder, as the sunflower that turns on its god when he sets the same look that it turned when he rose as Byron says. But, dear, Miss Morris, I cannot by any possibility endure my present state of mind, which sleeping or waking 'tis all just the same, so I have applied for leave of absence for a few days; and, borne on the pinions of affection, I hope to steer my barque to your native locality, the situation of which I have learned from your highly respectable female relative, who has on several occasions poured the balm of hope into my lacerated bosom, and given me all necessary information for finding the whereabouts of the object of my pilgrimage through the valley of the shadow. For truly may I say that the kiss, dear maid, thy lips have left shall never part from mine till happier hours restore the gift untainted back to thine as Byron says. Till then farewell, and give a thought to one who never can cease to think of thee.'"

"What do you think of it, Miss?" Bessy asked, as Grace was trying to make out the signature, which was dashed off in a manner betokening the distracted state of the writer's mind.

"Oh, 'tis very fine indeed," she replied with a wise look.

"But I don't know what to think of that kissing," Mary observed. "Was there really anything of that sort, Bessy?"

"Well; not much, Miss," returned Bessy, laughing.

"Take care, Bessy. If he is not a person you really care for, there may be something not quite right in it. It is quite possible he feels as he says he does; and if so, what would you do?"

Bessy looked grave, but said nothing.

"Don't mind her preaching," said Grace. "For my part, I'm determined to 'break all hearts like china-ware' as Byron says," she added with her ringing laugh.

Bessy Morris continued to look grave, and slipped her hand into her pocket, as she had so, often done during the day. But this time she drew out the little box Billy Heffernan had given her, when Grace thought he was only shaking hands with her over his creel. She would have opened it at once, but seeing Mat Donovan approaching, she thrust it hurriedly into her pocket, looking so frightened for a moment, and so very innocent and unconscious immediately after, that Billy Heffernan shook his head as he drove on after the usual "Yo-up, Kit!" to his mule, and mentally came to the conclusion that Bessy had "the two ways in her."

"But where is the wan uv 'em that haven't?" Billy Heffernan philosophically observed, as he untied his whip, and gave Kit who was deliberately bent upon bringing the wheel of his cart into contact with that of an approaching dray a touch upon the shoulder that made her wince, and keep her own side of the road.

Mat Donovan escorted Bessy to the house, and she had no opportunity to examine the dragoon's gift alone afterwards, though her curiosity was sufficiently strong every time her thoughts recurred to it.

Removing the paper in which it was wrapped, she hastily took off the lid of the little box. She started on seeing what it contained, and after looking at it for nearly a minute with her eyes wide open, handed it to Miss Kearney.

"They are very handsome," she observed.

"Oh, they are just the same as Eve's," exclaimed Grace, snatching the box from Mary's hand, "just the same."

"Do you think are they gold, Miss?" Bessy asked.

"Oh, yes, I am quite sure they are gold," returned Mary.

Bessy Morris seized the box, quite agitated with pleasure, and taking from it one of a handsome pair of earrings, fixed it with a trembling hand in her ear.

"Is it the gift or the giver you are thinking of?" Grace asked, as she marked the flush deepen upon her cheek.

Bessy looked as if she did not comprehend the question, but after a minute's reflection she understood it very well.

"I believe," she replied thoughtfully, "I was thinking of nothing but that I had a pair of gold earrings. I was often wishing to have them, but they were too dear for myself to buy them."

"You seem to be very candid," returned Mary.

"It is too much that way I am," she replied.

"Some wise man has said," Grace observed, "that the proper use of language is to conceal our thoughts; and, to a certain extent, I agree with him."

"Indeed you do not," said Mary. "You know nothing is more odious than duplicity and deceit."

"But a little diplomacy is necessary to get on smoothly through the world. You have told us nothing about your admirer," she added, turning to Bessy Morris. "Who and what is he?"

"If they are real gold," Bessy observed, contemplatively, as she looked at the earrings, "his love must be true."

"I am not sure that is quite correct reasoning," said Mary, with a smile. "I fear real gold is not always a proof of true love."

"But sure he would not go to such expense," returned Bessy.

"Oh, I have no doubt but he admires you very much," replied Mary; "and unless he is rich, so costly a present may be a proof of the ardour of his regard for you."

"Well, he's only a sergeant in the army, Miss," replied Bessy.

"Oh, it is quite romantic!" Grace exclaimed.

Bessy Morris suddenly became very industrious, and Miss Kearney thought she was trying to make up for the time lost on account of the gold earrings. But Bessy's mind was busy as well as her fingers. Miss Kearney's warning, though given half in jest, startled her, and she began to examine her conscience in reference to her conduct towards the soldier. She could not conceal from herself that she had done her best to attract him, and was flattered by every evidence of her success. She had tried to "get inside" other girls, and it gratified her vanity to see herself preferred to them. She even thought her heart was touched, she felt so pained when she fancied her admirer was wavering in his allegiance. But when she became quite sure he loved her, she found that she did not really care for him; and, perhaps, to get rid of his attentions was one reason for her leaving Dublin. The intensity of his passion was so evident when she met him in her grandfather's house, after returning from the wedding, that it quite frightened her, and, in spite of the candour upon which she had just plumed herself, she shrank from telling Miss Kearney that her martial suitor had already "steered his barque" to Knocknagow; for she devoutly hoped no one in the neighbourhood would ever know any thing about it, as Peg Brady had promised faithfully to keep the dragoon's visit a profound secret, and Billy Heffernan said nothing about him except that he had met him in Clonmel.

She stopped sewing, and, resting her hand upon the table, commenced tapping it nervously, just as she had done while sitting in her grandfather's chair, after the soldier's passionate farewell. Happening to glance through the window, a sad, wistful look came into her face; and it was so evident that this look was called up by some object upon which her eyes rested, that Grace followed their direction to see what it could be that made Bessy Morris look so sad, and, as she thought, yearningly. Grace could see nothing in the direction of her gaze but three tall trees standing all alone upon the bare hill.

"I often remark those lonely-looking trees," she observed, "and when the wind is drifting the snow or the cold rain over the hill, I quite pity them. I fancy they must feel the cold. And they sometimes remind me of three tall nuns."

"They are more like round towers, or something of that sort," said Mary.

"Their shadow is now on the house where I was born," said Bessy Morris.

"Indeed!" said Grace. "I thought you must feel interested in something up there; you looked so earnestly in that direction."

"My mother was the daughter of a respectable farmer," Bessy continued. "And though my father was the son of a tradesman, he was considered a good match for her, as his father was able to give him three hundred pounds, which was given as a fortune to my mother's sister. I suppose you know, Miss, a weaver was a good trade in Ireland long ago. But the rent was raised and crops failed, and my father was ejected. 'Twas a cruel case, every one said, and no one ever offered to take the farm since; so that it comes into my mind sometimes that I'll live there again."

"Is your mother dead?" Grace asked.

"She is, Miss. The day the sheriff was there to turn them out she clung to the door, and one of the bailiffs, in dragging her from it, threw her upon the ground, and it was thought the fall killed her; but I believe it was her heart that broke."

"And is your father alive?"

"I hope he is, but I don't know."

Grace looked at her with surprise.

"When he heard my mother scream," continued Bessy, "and saw Darby Ruadh fling her upon the ground, he lost all control over himself, and taking hold of one of the policemen's guns, he dragged it from him and knocked the bailiff down with the butt end of it. He then swore he'd shoot the first man who would lay a hand on him; and they were all so much taken by surprise that they let him walk out of the yard, and he had a good start before they ran after him."

"Did they catch him?" Grace asked eagerly.

"No, Miss," returned Bessy, "he hid himself in an old sandpit on the farm and escaped."

"Do you remember your father and mother?" Mary asked.

"I do, Miss, well," she replied. "My mother was a beautiful young woman. She died the next night at my grandfather's. And I remember my father coming to take his leave of her though the soldiers and police were scouring the country after him, for 'twas thought Darby Ruadh would not recover, as his skull was fractured. There was nothing but meetings of magistrates, and rewards offered, and houses searched, and people arrested to give evidence. You'd think it was war that was in the country. My grandfather advised my father to go to America, 'an let me see the man,' said he, 'that'll offer to take your farm. You were robbed, and no man but a robber will offer for your land. This trouble about the bailiff will blow over, and you can come home again. And I'll be a father and mother to little Bessy,' says he, when he saw my father taking me in his arms and kissing me. And he kept his word," she added, wiping the tears from her eyes.

"And did you never hear from your father after?"

"Never," replied Bessy, "except once a man from the colliery mentioned in a letter that he saw him out west, and that he had carpets on his floors. But though we made every inquiry, we could get no tidings of him."

"And do you wish very much to see him?"

"'Tis the strongest wish of my heart," she replied. "Only that I could not leave my poor old grandfather, I'd go in search of my father. That was another motive that induced me to become a dressmaker; for I said to myself I'd get employment in the different towns in America, and could travel the whole country."

"Don't do anything hastily," said Mary. "While you would be looking for him, he might come back to look for you."

"That's true," returned Bessy. "But I'd keep up a correspondence with Judy Brophy, or some one. I don't think I can ever have an easy mind till I am sure of what happened to him, at any rate. I am always thinking he is poor and neglected, and was ashamed to write to us."

She looked again towards the trees; but her thoughts recurred to the dragoon, and her brow flushed as she recollected that she had replied to one or two of his letters. He might, she thought, accuse her of faithlessness; and her conscience told her the charge would not be altogether without foundation.

"I will request of him not to come again," she said to herself; "and if he be a man of spirit he will respect my wishes."

"Surely this is Apollo in the garden with Adonis," Grace exclaimed. "I wonder where are they going? I thought he was to be away on business all day what do you think, Mary?"

"If that is not his fetch, it seems he has come back," replied Mary. "But as to where they are going, I wonder you should think it necessary to ask."

"Oh, yes," returned Grace with a toss of her head, "the attraction in that quarter must be very strong indeed. But they might at least have the politeness to inquire whether we would go."

Mr. Lowe turned back before he and the doctor had reached the stile, and Grace threw open the window.

"Going to pay your devoirs to the beauty of Castleview?" she exclaimed.

"Yes, the doctor is going to call at Mr. Hanly's; and perhaps you and Miss Kearney would come out for a walk as the day is so fine?"

"She is such a model of industry, I don't think you can induce her to go out but let her answer for herself."

After a little hesitation Mary came to the window, saying, "Well, if you have patience to wait for a few minutes we will go."

Mr. Lowe bowed, and went to tell the doctor, who was standing with folded arms near the laurels, and looking intensely sentimental.

"Well, now," said Grace, as she went on arranging her hair on observing Bessy Morris move her chair so that she could see the two young men in the garden "which of those two gallant gay Lotharios do you think the best-looking?"

"I think Mr. Richard has the advantage," Bessy answered.

"He is particularly well got up just now," returned Grace, glancing over her shoulder through the window, "and does really look handsome."

"'Twas always given up to him, Miss," rejoined Bessy, "to be the handsomest young man in the parish. 'Tis often I heard it said that he was the handsomest boy, and Miss Mary the handsomest girl going into the chapel of Kilthubber. Though some would give Miss Hanly the palm."

"Why, Mary, you are quite famous! And do they never talk of those who go to church?"

"Oh, yes, Miss. Miss Isabella Lloyd has a strong party, who says she is by odds a finer girl than either of them. I'm told she is to be married to Captain French and a fine couple they'll be. He's to throw the sledge with Mat Donovan next Sunday. But, talking of handsome men," continued Bessy, while her eyes sparkled with admiration, "there is a handsomer man to my mind than any of 'em."

Mary ran to the window with quite an excited look. Was there some one who, to her mind, was a handsomer man than her remarkably handsome brother? She smiled at what she mentally called her foolishness, and the flush faded from her cheek. But her eyes sparkled, too, when she saw the person to whom Bessy alluded.

"Why," exclaimed Grace in astonishment, "'tis Fionn Macool

"Who is that, Miss?" Bessy asked.

"Oh, that's what I call him," she replied, pointing to Hugh, who had just come into the garden.

"You couldn't call him a grander name," returned Bessy. "He was the great chief of the Fenians long ago. The top of Slievenamon is called Shee-Feen after him. My grand father would keep telling you stories about him for a month."

What way does he tell the story of the Beauty Race? Is it that he had all the beautiful women in Ireland assembled in the Valley of Compsey, to run a race to the top of the mountain, and the first up would be his wife?"

"Yes, that was the way, Miss," replied Bessy.

"The longest-legged or the longest-winded was to have him. Do you call him a hero? The man was a savage, and the poor girls that came to grief in the race were most fortunate."

"Yes, Miss, but several great kings wanted him to marry their daughters, and it was all a plan to keep them from falling out with him. And there was one little girl he would rather have than the whole box-and-dice of them. So he told her to go fair and easy round by the Clodagh, and take her time, and not run with the rest at all. They all took to pulling and dragging one another the minute they started, and Fionn had Grauna in his arms on the top of Shee-Feen before one of them was half-way up the first hill."

"The moral of which is," said Grace, as she swung her pretty little cloak over her shoulders, "in running for a husband, 'take your time,' and 'go fair and easy,' and don't take to 'pulling and dragging' your rivals and get yourself pulled and dragged in return, besides losing the prize into the bargain. What's that you called the 'little girl he'd rather have than any of them?'"

"She was called the Fair-haired Grauna she was a namesake of your own for Grauna is the Irish of Grace."

"Oh, I am quite proud to be the namesake of a lady so distinguished. And who knows but it may be an omen, and I may, like her, be clasped in a warrior's arms. Oh, those brave days of old, when one might win the love of some noble knight sans peur et sans reproche. When I think of it I am sick of your Apollos and your Adonises. In fact Bessy, I could almost envy you your 'sergeant in the army.'"

"Whether you joke or no, Miss," replied Bessy, laughing, "'twas something like that was in my mind when I met him first."

"I wonder at you, who are such a patriot, Grace," said Mary, "to talk in that way."

"Oh, I was only thinking of the soldier in the abstract," replied Grace, with a frown. "And will not Mr. Lowe be an English soldier one of these days?"

"So I understand," returned Mary. "And how would you like," she added, turning to Bessy, "to have your husband with those soldiers who passed this way the other day to shoot down the poor people whose houses were going to be levelled if they offered any resistance to the crowbar brigade?"

"That's true," Bessy answered thoughtfully. "And I thought, too, how my grandfather was flogged in '98."

"But, Bessy," said Grace, as she drew on her gloves near the window, "how can you say such a black-looking fellow as that is handsome? I always set him down as the ugliest fellow I ever saw. And though I have modified that opinion somewhat latterly particularly since I saw Mr. Beresford Pender still it does make me wonder to hear him called a handsome man. Where, in the name of goodness, is the beauty?"

"Well, I don't know, Miss," she answered, laying down her work and looking earnestly at Hugh Kearney, "but see how strong, and manly, and honest, he looks. If a lion was rushing to devour you, or a ship sinking under you, wouldn't you feel safe if his arm was around you?"

"There is really something in what she says," Grace observed seriously. "If a lion leaped over that hedge and were about seizing you, Fionn would have him by the throat instantly. Apollo, too, would stand his ground in his cool way. But I strongly suspect Adonis would cut and run. Not out of cowardice exactly, but he always thinks first of his precious self, and would only remember poor me when I was already gobbled up."

"Are ye going to keep us waiting all day?" the subject of this not very flattering criticism called out.

"He is not inclined to go 'fair and easy,'" Grace observed. "Are you ready, Mary?"

"I'll be ready in a moment. I merely have to direct this letter to Father Carroll."

"By the way," returned Grace, "you did not show me that note Barney threw up to you the other evening. It has just occurred to me that Barney put Bessy's letter in his hat, too, and forgot it; and as hers was a love-letter, perhaps so was yours." "That's all nonsense," said Mary.

"Did you ever see my brother Edmund, Bessy," Grace continued, "and what did you think of him?"

"he's a fine pleasant fellow, Miss," returned Bessy. "He used to be fishing with Mr. Hugh at the river, and they sometimes called in to have a chat with my grandfather."

"I thought he would come home at Christmas," said Grace, "but something turned up to prevent him. I wrote to him to say that he has no business here any more." And she nodded her head towards Mary, and then looked out at Mr. Lowe, in a way that made both Mary and Bessy Morris laugh.

"And did you tell him that Anne sent her love to him?"

"Yes, but that's nothing. I am quite sure Anne will end her days in a convent."

"I thought Edmund would be sure to win that prize for which so many are contending."

"You mean Minnie Delany? No, it will never come to anything. He has something in his head that I cannot make out. I heard Father Carroll and Arthur O'Connor jesting about it. Edmund says that he and Arthur always fell in love with the same lady by some fatality; and only that Arthur is to be a priest they would be sure to run foul of each other. Only think of a duel between two such bosom friends, about some beauty that didn't care a pin about either of them."

"Come away," exclaimed Mary, "unless you want to have Richard vowing vengeance against us." And she ran so precipitately out of the room, that Grace shook her head and knit her brows, as if she thought that between her brother and Arthur O'Connor and Mary Kearney there was most certainly a mystery, which, as yet, she could make nothing of. She followed Mary to the garden, leaving Bessy Morris in the little room alone.

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